Ireland Women’s hockey star Hannah Matthews is looking forward to the side’s first-ever Olympic venture at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games.
The side will play their first-ever Olympic match on Saturday when they face South Africa in their pool stage opener.
Sean Dancer’s side is looking to take this tournament one game at a time rather than worry about the bigger picture.
“At the moment, it’s just taking one game at a time. This is all really new to us, we’ve never been to an Olympics and we are one of the few teams [in the tournament] who have never been to an Olympics before,” said Matthews.
The Olympic call-up will be a special memory for the 30-year-old defender but it is also a weird one.
Matthews explains the uncommon label she has put on the experience by noting that the aftermath was different to what a call-up would have meant before the pandemic.
It felt bittersweet as there were players who trained with them that missed out on a spot and there was no possibility of a big celebration, with it only kicking in for Matthews on kit day.
“It was really emotional. I’m obviously so delighted, it’s a dream come true but it was really hard to believe that it was actually happening.”
The teacher has been allowed to commit herself fully to the national hockey preparations for the tournament after going on a career break.
The career break was more to do with contractual obligations, according to Matthews, but she feels she has benefitted from it and added that the school she works at has been really supportive.
Their preparations have included an underwhelming EuroHockey Nations Championship campaign in the Netherlands.
The side was knocked out of the group stage on goals scored and suffered an embarrassing 5-1 loss to England, finishing sixth and missing out on an FIH 2022 World Cup qualification spot.
“I think we were definitely disappointed – more so in our performances. We just felt like we didn’t really represent how well we’ve been playing and how well we’ve been training.”
However, Matthews did note that it was the best Olympic preparation they could have asked for as they played against top sides throughout their time in the tournament.
The defender cited the improved performance against the Netherlands, compared to their World Cup final loss, and hopes that the side will keep improving.
They come into the Olympics ranked ninth in the world and Matthews feels that part of that is down to their close-knit group, both on and off the pitch.
Many of the players were part of the 2018 FIH World Cup campaign, including Deirdre Duke, and have grown close to each other over the years.
“It’s a massive thing for our squad. It’s always going to be a benefit when you’re in such close quarters for that long.”
However, their families will not be able to travel to cheer the girls on at the Olympics in Tokyo.
The Loreto captain lamented that some families may miss players’ last games if they retire.
But, the Dubliner does not believe that the lack of crowds will affect the Irish side as they have played in empty stadiums before.
“The support we had against Canada [in the Olympic play-off] and in the World Cup was incredible, I’ve never experienced anything like it. But, we also have experience of playing to absolutely no one and empty stands unfortunately so I guess we’ll draw on that…It’s something we’re used to so I dont think it’ll affect us that much.”
She takes comfort in knowing that everyone is in the same boat.
Dancer’s Ireland go into this tournament with others wary of what they are capable of after current New Zealand boss Graham Shaw led them to a World Cup silver medal in a tournament where they were outsiders.
Matthew and co. also have nothing to compare the experience of playing at the Olympics too but the defender has confidence they can do well, noting that anything can happen in tournament hockey.
“You have to believe in yourself or it’s no use to anyone.”